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Among the mountains of data on the problem of obesity in America , the avalanches of surveys and studies, indices and cross indices, fever lines and pictograms , one statistic in particular is especially jarring, and it is simply that obesity now ranks second only to cigarette smoking as the leading cause of mortality in the U.S. In other words, Americans are eating themselves to death in record numbers.
Comparisons between cigarette smoking and overeating don't end there. With the nation's expanding waistline showing no signs receding, legislators from all branches and levels of government are scrambling to address the problem in ways that may sound familiar to smokers. There are proposals to ban food vending machines containing chips, sodas and candy bars from school cafeterias and other public places, proposals to curb or eliminate television commercials marketing fatty foods to children, proposals to make fast-foods chains post on-site nutritional information about the foods served at their restaurants. Then there has been the resurrection of the so-called fat-tax. To date, some 17 states have imposed such levies, most of which target foods high in fat, sugar and carbohydrates, such as sodas, french fries and candy bars, albeit in amounts that aren't likely to dissuade consumers from purchasing those items. "Most of those states impose levies of about 1 percent of the purchase price," says Jeff Cronin, communications director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). However, the majority of the money, he says, is typically allocated to General Funds, meaning that very little, if any, is specifically earmarked to promote fitness and nutrition among constituents.
That may change. In late spring, Brooklyn Democratic Assemblyman Felix Ortiz made news by introducing a bill that would impose a 1 percent fat tax on all obesity-linked snacks, soft drinks and junk foods sold in New York, with the resulting funds , about $50 million per year by his estimates , allocated toward nutrition education for children, as well as after-school fitness and recreation programs. Since making his proposal in early June, Ortiz has been a busy man, having traveled to Arizona, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts and other states that are interested in using his proposal as a template for similar measures. Though his own bill won't be decided by New York's legislature until at least September due to summer recess, Ortiz is confident it will have the support of his fellow lawmakers whenever the vote finally occurs. He says he has even received support from members of the food industry. "Food manufacturers know the problem is here and that they need to be a part of the solution before it's too late," he says. "They also know that I'm not going to stop until this problem has been solved."
If Ortiz sounds like a zealot, well, he is. As chief of the State of New York's Task Force on Nutrition, Food and Farm Policy he spent innumerable hours and days at roundtables, debates and public hearings on obesity, and walked away convinced that the problem is reaching crisis proportions in New York, threatening not only the public's health, but the health of the state's health care system, which he says cannot support the strain that obesity has put on it. Something had to be done, he says. "Understand that my bill isn't telling people what to eat," he explains. "The goal is to educate people about nutrition so they can adopt a more well-rounded diet. We're not trying to tell them not to buy a candy bar"
While food industry representatives agree on the importance of nutritional education programs, they don't necessarily believe that a food tax is the most desirable means of achieving that end, particularly a tax that categorically brands certain food types as unhealthy. "We need to focus on education and programs on how to eat and live a healthy lifestyle rather than promote the idea that there are ,'good foods' and ,'bad foods' as defined by a so-called sin tax," says Robert Earl, MPH, RD, senior director of nutrition policy with the National Food Processors Association (NFPA).
Ortiz doesn't agree that fat taxes necessarily stigmatize fatty foods , or at least their makers. "When the tax is coupled with public education effort, it tells consumers that manufacturers are part of the solution," he says.
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